First trip into Meghalaya in the Northeast of India
25.03.2013 - 28.03.2013 28 °C
The Khasi Hills near Cherrapunji (Sohra in the local language) in the northeast state of Meghalaya are a wonder! Meghalaya means “the abode of the clouds,” and is estimated to have just over three million people at latest count, with over 70% of the state covered in forest.
We arrived after a seven-hour drive from Kaziranga to the Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort just before sunset. For most of the journey, the drive is quite lovely as it takes you through tea gardens and villages on the way back to Guwahati, and then off through the winding roadway via Shillong to Cherrapunji. Shillong is a major holiday destination for Indians, but on this quick drive-through, I didn’t feel the need to return. Still, tis called the Scotland of India for some reason, so never say never!
The first thing we noticed at Meghalaya’s main border crossing, next-door to Assam’s city of Guwahati, was ramshackle shop after shop selling alcohol. The state of Meghalaya has very low tax on its alcohol, which was perhaps an early indication of how wonderful the state would prove to be? You can imagine the Assamese Wine Shops are not the most prosperous!
The highway, most of which was under construction, is the main artery between the states. We were definitely in the minority in our little car, surrounded by big, decorated trucks transporting goods to and from the region as we traversed the winding narrow road cut into the hills. Agriculture is the main industry here, though we also passed coal mining areas. The state is purported to be quite rich in minerals, which doesn’t bode well for that 70% forests I’m thinking. According to many agri-science-folk, this region may be the origin site for domesticated rice farming! Huge history, going all the way back to Neolithic (12-8,000 years ago) human settlements.
After checking in to the wonderful Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, we watched the sun set over the Khasi hills and valleys, with the twinkling lights of Bangladesh laid out below. This hotel is lovely, simple and superbly run. There are two buildings housing the resort’s rooms. The newer building’s Executive Rooms, a stone’s throw from the main structure, are more spacious and more expensive. The standard and deluxe options are in the main building and their doors all open onto the central, circular dining room, which would be great for groups and large families.
Most of the staff were women, which might be why it ran so well! A true family business, with helpful and attentive staff. Owned by a husband and wife team, we spent most time with Denis, who was very informative and passionate about the region, in perhaps the way only people from ‘away’ can be. Although his wife is from the region, Denis is from Tamil Nadu – about as far away as is possible to come from in India. Happy to arrange drivers, guides, maps, anything you might want, without charging extra. A true friend of the communities around the resort, working hard to have the success of their establishment translate into prosperity for the peoples.
They have created a truly unique place here in the clouds. Happy to share and have their guest’s share their experiences to enhance future guest experiences. Makes you feel a bit a part of the place, even when stopping for only a few nights. There is no shortage of outdoor adventures to have and a lot of resources to help point you in the right direction. Birding, hiking, camping, rafting, and exploring; or just sitting in one of the many concrete gazebo’s around the grounds, or a short hike away overlooking the valleys. Something for all fitness levels. You really have to try very hard not to absorb some of the place’s magic.
Oh yeah, food here is lovely, local, homely and affordable too! Ask for some of the local dishes, the staff was happy to set us up with their favourites. Wouldn’t stay anywhere else in these hills.
There are many interesting unique aspects to this region and the first to strike us was that virtually the entire staff at the resort were women. After remarking on it, we learned the Khasi’s are a matrilineal society, and while not exclusively matriarchal, Khasi women have a lot of personal power. Inheritance is to the youngest female in the family, and all family members take the mother’s surname. When the ‘heiress’ agrees to marry, the husband comes to live with the bride’s family. If the bride is not the inheritor in the family, the young couple can set up their own household. Marriages are not arranged and divorce is not at all difficult nor a particularly shameful occurrence.
We had three nights here and it didn’t rain once, even though Cherrapunji is oft named the Rainiest Place on Earth (a neighbouring locale has taken the honor the last couple of years). Nice really in the long run, because our hikes didn’t encounter the dread leech, which during the rainy season would be an inevitability. They’re not dangerous, just annoying so don’t let them scare you away!
The first few days we spent hiking through trails and villages to various vantage points on the ridge trying, often in vain, to glimpse the birds we could hear all around us. The people have hunted the area quite extensively so there isn’t much for wildlife and those we spotted were very shy. Fun challenge! When you walk through these forests, or overlook the valleys below, you can’t help but feel the otherworldliness of the area. Enhanced by the many local legends, which of course Denis and family had compiled for our reading pleasure!
Another interesting sight was the number of churches in the area. Predominantly Christian we learned Welsh missionaries came to the region in the 1800s bringing their beliefs with them. Though I’m not personally a fan of evangelicalism, perhaps this was not an unwelcome change.
In the area by the nearby Daiñthlen waterfall (thlen is Khasi for Python), legend has it there was a large, evil Thlen that would devour half the people who passed through. When the people decided they’d had enough, they managed to trick the Thlen into swallowing a red hot iron ball, killing it. To stop it from coming back, they ate its flesh, but… and there’s always a but… one old woman kept a piece for her travelling son’s return, but forgot!! Uh oh… and the Thlen came back. It resided with the family and could change forms to all manner of critters, and it demanded Khasi blood! But, not with iron, since that was the way it was killed. The family then became the first Thlen keeper and had to provide Khasi blood to the Thlen whenever it required, or they would suffer great misfortune. The cult of the Nongshohnoh (meaning beater) was begun. The Nongshohnoh, would perform a ritual, get drunk, take his club and go searching for a victim on deserted paths. After clubbing the sacrifice to death they were ritually disfigured and blood collected in a bamboo vessel for the Thlen.
Historically, the Khasi’s were known to practice this snake worship and offer human sacrifices to it. After some time, the majority of the people decided to give up this practice, though there continued a few families who went underground to continue to follow the old ways… there’s always someone! Then the practice started to slowly spread again until the mid-19th century with the start of Christianity in the hills.
Every once and a while, the superstitions reappear and make the news, though it seems to be more often a case of killing suspected Nongshohnohs. A version of Salem’s Witch trials with similar mortal results for the hapless individuals caught by the mob. Long held cultural and traditional beliefs are so complex and so hard to leave behind no matter where you are in the world.
Living Root Bridges
The Living Root Bridges only recently become known to the world outside this region and are one of the most spectacular engineered wonders I have ever seen.
The Khasi people made use of the ficus elastica tree’s incredible abilities to survive by rooting strongly in water, on rocks and on sandy soil. In a region where the intense rain and resulting engorged rivers quickly rot any wooden structure or wear away stone and concrete, the use of this tree was ingenious.
The method takes upward of 20 years to complete but lasts hundreds of years. The first step is to select and hollow out betel tree trunks, which are then placed across the river allowing the ficus’ secondary aerial roots to be trained and constrained across the river. Once they reach, the roots are allowed to grow into the bank and rocks. As the root system grows in, flat rocks are placed in any holes along the floor of the bridge, which the tree then wraps around and ‘cements’ into place. Side rail roots are trained to complete the structure. These bridges have spanned rivers over 100ft in length, can support 50 people at a time and have been purported to last 500 years!
We spent the first few days working up the courage to take on the trek to see the Living Root Bridges, far down in the valley below us. I knew I wanted to see them but having read more than a few accounts of the rather grueling trek was very uncertain cause y’all know haven't been the most fitness-centric person in a while. Denis, however, was so encouraging, that we finally decided to make the trek. He said it was simply a case of your mind. If you believe it, you can do it. Denis set us up with walking sticks (very helpful along some of the steeper, more uneven passages) and young local guide, and set us off on the journey early enough to allow us to return before dusk, which we did… barely.
To see these bridges, in particular the Umshiang Bridge, commonly dubbed the ‘Double Decker’ bridge, requires a 10 kilometre hike, starting from the village of Tyrna. The first section is down 2004 quite steep concrete steps (per the count made by Timothy Allen of the Human Planet) to the village of Nong Thymai, then over two suspension bridges, a smaller living root bridge and another 1000 stone steps leading the way across the valley, over a (relatively) small hill, and part-way up the opposite side of the valley to the village of Nongriat. Not too bad I suppose, but, then you have to come back! There’s a small, basic guest house set up in the valley near Nongriat. Would be a great place to base more explorations down in the valley.
We set off at 9am, electing to be driven to and from Tyrna and reached the top of those bloody concrete steps about 5pm. You can walk from the resort along an easy sloping road, which adds another 10 kilometres round trip. There was a wonderful and welcome surprise enroute; a water pipe system runs down the stairs and through the villages with many tap stations along the way. It’s above ground so the water was pretty warm as the day progressed, but, you can drink it!! Straight from the tap with nary a problem. Was an essential bonus since there was no way I could have carried enough water and returned home to write this blog!
I felt quite tired, but surprisingly not overly given the exertion of the day. I’d managed to make it up the final 2004 stairs by focusing on taking 25 at a time, and briefly stopping, counting off my progress in my head. ½ way there… ¾ there… 100 more to go… Phew! The lovely Khasi villagers, who of course make this trek often, would often stop to smile at the red-faced foreigner and commiserate kindly. Lovely people.
The real fun came later... I have never had such sore muscles in my life! Both of us were hobbling along in a pretty amusing way. Following any similar experience with sore muscles I reassuringly and assuredly stated, no worries, will be worse tomorrow, but then we’ll feel fine! Uh uh! Took a week to be able to get off the toilet without crying! What? Too much info?
We met a couple arriving as we got to our car. They were about to start the trek down. We warned them against it, as they were not very athletically inclined and suggested perhaps they might want to go the next morning. Not sure if they followed our advice… they didn’t look like they believed us.
I’d like to close this portion with saying… DO IT! This is a superb place to visit. It left me wanting more, and to be more fit and able to see more, more easily. As long as you’re otherwise healthy, just take your time and don’t sit down along the way or it might be a bit tough to get started again. The day is long but there’s beautiful streams and pools to cool off in at the bottom, so bring/wear a bathing suit. If you have bad knees, there is another trek that is much shorter and without the many stairs to another smaller but beautiful bridge from the resort.
This small state is so different from the India most people in the west hear about. It leaves me very curious about the other northeast tribal states often referred to as the Seven Sister States. They are – Assam and Meghalaya (which I’ve now visited), Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. Travel to the latter five (except Tripura) long required additional entry permits, though as of this blog, with the exception of AP, foreign tourists apparently no longer need to get permits but must register within 24 hours of entering the state. This currently applies to most, but not all foreign nationalities, and like many bureaucratic issues in India, can change daily, so make sure you check before going.